Representativeness and the insider’s voice

On 18/08/2014, a representative from iSEE shared with 30 other representatives from organizations working on ethnic minority on the topic of “Representativeness and the insider’s voice”. The speech focused on the importance of community organizations working for their rights, as well as their advantages and difficulties. It was a part of the exchange forum on issues regarding ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

Following is the summary of iSEE’s presentation

Community organizations play an important role in various movements for the rights of marginalized groups in the society. The definition of “community” is very broad, including any group of people who share interests, ideas, knowledge, motivations and action plans, such as the disadvantaged, immigrants, gamers or LGBTA…

Why are they important?

First and foremost, community organizations are important because “If I don’t speak up for myself, who would?” There will always be someone who would speak about you and make decisions upon you. Let alone further ideas, the necessity for individuals to speak up for themselves is essential per se.

In many cases, a minority community faces many barriers to raise their voices. For example, to people with intellectual disability, their community organizations have to speak through a representative. There are several types of representatives such as their counterparts, the experts, their family, etc.

Although there are many community service organizations, an organization of the community is another story. In English, the verb “advocate” also means “a representative”. However, we should not understand this word in an individualistic sense, instead considering it as one characteristic of a community organization. For that organization to be representative, having a lot of members alone is not enough. It must provide its members with adequate opportunities to raise their voice.

Advantages of community organizations. 

It is conceivable that community organizations can play important roles in our society, thanks to their considerable advantages over other types of organizations to achieve efficacy and bring about positive impacts.

1. Abundant resources (experiences, stories…): Since a community organization is often made up of groups or individuals within the community, it can obtain real-life stories and experiences that can be very helpful and persuasive. For example, a transgender-right organization can prove one’s right to change one’s gender through stories of transgender people being rejected and questioned when they undergo medical examination for military service or travel by air. Not every policy analyst can obtain such ample evidences.

2. Large network: Members of a community organization have better chances to observe, analyze and figure out sensible solutions because they can work and live with other like-minded people. The intimacy between them also provide the community organization with a plenty of ideas and creativity. The more the members share with each other, the better they adapt to the environment, interact with their community and develop their ideas.

3. Stronger unity and mobilizing strength: From the two advantages above, community organizations are also better at calling for support and contribution from the community. Another example is that relatives of cancer patients are often more eager to contribute to cancer research funds. Since the grassroots foundation of community organization is to solve issues of the community, their first and final purpose must be the betterment of every individual in the community.

4. Pride: Community organizations often emphasize the central role of “pride” in their structure and operation, for that is what set community organizations apart from other community service organizations. The members who lead the community organizations change not only their lives but also others’, with whom they share common causes. Their subsequent excitement is different from that of an outside expert who support the organizations; it is something only the insiders can feel.

5. Effective leadership: the leaders of the community organizations are accepted by the community for their impact and inspiration. There can be more than one leader, and they don’t have to be the head of the organizations. Oftentimes, they either found a community organization or work for one, since they believe it to be the most suitable environment to work in.

Limits of community organizations:

1. Members of the community organizations can have their voices marginalized because they are claimed to be the “insiders” and lack objectivity. For example, many people will feel suspicious when homosexuals discuss their right to adopt children, since they believe that right is for the homosexuals’ benefits only. This is the consequence of undermining the voices from minority groups and considering them as “victims” or “troublemakers”, and leads to the belief that members of that groups would have to speak positively of themselves. But if the insiders speaking are experts, then what matter is whether their argument are just and persuasive, not other personal factors.

Many members of the community are afraid of speaking publicly due to their fear of being branded “subjective” perspectives. However, it is advisable that they should speak out of their identity from the start, for anonymity would only cause more gossips. They also need to understand their capabilities and limits as experts on the discussing issues. For example, a homosexual person participating in a training program about homosexuality should identify him/herself as homosexual, indicates his/her knowledge and expertise on what fields as well as his/her limits. This will surely bring advantages for further discussion.

2. Members of the community can oppositely have their voices overgeneralized. The argument is that because they are the insiders, their voices must be true, and any counterargument can be rejected by claiming “That is what they say”. I have met some people who believed that homosexual people care about nothing but sex, and claimed they heard so from “many homosexual people”. We must differentiate between knowledge and opinions, since the latter can reflect one person’s experience and belief, but may not be true to others’.

To solve this issue, the members should factor in the perspectives of people from other communities in their discussions.

3. Victimization often occurs in groups that have suffered terribly from social stigmatization and discrimination. Victimization can erode their confidence and self-determination, thus, they expect the higher authority to take responsibility. The groups, therefore, must know exactly what they are speaking and how those words can help them achieve their purposes. This would gradually help members of the groups consider the issues from a problem-solving perspective instead of a self-pity perspective.

4. Bureaucratization has rendered many community organizations ineffective and distant from the community they are supposed to serve. Worse, these organizations can become a vehicle to control the discussions and opinions in the community. In order to avoid being bureaucratized, community organizations must stick to their core principle, foster relations and network within the community, and respect the community’s diversity without compromising its interests. They must always remember themselves as members of the community. Sometimes, they should ignore the experts and listen to their community and other people instead.

5. Members of community organizations are susceptible to oversensitivity and self-discrimination. They can be hurt by the discrimination they are trying to abolish. However, improving professionalism and experiences will help them overcome and manage discrimination from the outside, even learning interesting lessons to apply in discussions and shape perspectives.

Conclusion

As the member of a community organization, you may have to face with many oppositions. Even people in your community may doubt the capability and mission of your organization and its members.

Is it possible for someone outside the community to understand more about it than the people inside do? A community’s values should be determined by that community per se, and its insiders have the advantage of understanding those values. History has witnessed many men fighting for women’s rights, white people fighting for colored people’, and straight people fighting for homosexuals’. A person, regardless of being an outsider or an insider, should learn to attach him/herself to the community’s values, since understanding and upholding those values is the final key to contribute to that community.

Huy Lương